With the way Wes Anderson's "The Darjeeling Limited" has been splitting the film criterati down the middle as of late, inciting reviewers to either shower Anderson with the usual praise or gut the wunderkind like a fish, you'd expect "Darjeeling" to be something of a polarizing effort, Anderson's most challenging effort yet.
Well, is it? Yes and no.
If anything, "Darjeeling" looks as though Anderson is trying to break out of the precious, privileged little universe he has created with his movies -- complete with his breakneck camera pans, slo-mo shots usually set to Kinks songs and fragile, ironic performances -- and attempting to interject some semblance of the real world.
Anderson does this by telling the story of the Whitmans, a trio of brothers who haven't seen one another since their father's funeral a year ago. After a motorcycle accident leaves him facially/emotionally banged-up, big bro Francis (Owen Wilson) invites brothers Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) to take a train ride through India for a "spiritual quest."
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But even as Francis and his bald-headed assistant (played by former "Simpsons" writer Wallace Wolodarsky) draw up laminated itineraries for them (the laminated itineraries could be Anderson referring to the oft-mentioned complaint by his haters at how glossy and contained his films are), the boys can't help but get stuck in their secretive, neurotic grooves. The perpetually barefooted Jack hasn't gotten over his ex-girlfriend; when he's not checking her voice-mail messages (he has the code), he gets into a fling with the train stewardess (Amara Karan) to take his mind off her. (Since Schwartzman co-wrote the film with Anderson and cousin Roman Coppola, I'm assuming he wrote most of this to make him look like the hopeless romantic.) Middle child Peter is silently freaking out that he has a baby on the way. (He didn't think he'd be married long enough to have one.) And while the overbearing Francis mostly lectures his little brothers on being honest, he has a few secrets he's keeping from them -- like how this whole trip is really a pilgrimage to see/rescue their estranged mother (Angelica Huston).
The first hour of "Darjeeling" is subtle, farcical high jinks, with Wilson, Brody and Schwartzman forming a bumbling, bickering, cough syrup-guzzling trio of bratty basket cases -- the Marx Brothers with trust funds. Of course, it's during this hour you may wonder if Anderson is giving us another movie about overentitled dysfunctional folk oblivious to the chaos they ensue. But salvation comes in the last 30 minutes when the brothers venture outside the train and find themselves quietly dealing with tragedy head-on. You could say that Anderson is playing dirty, churning out an exploitative plot twist to manipulate the emotions of the crowd. But this does elevate the characters from filthy-rich fools to lost, grieving souls.
While "Darjeeling" is a film that may appear obvious at times (there is a scene where the brothers run after a train, and in another trademark Anderson slo-mo shot, literally throw their baggage aside), there is a sense that Anderson is working hard at tossing his usual sophisticated snarkiness to get some authentic, fully realized emotion in his films.
When Francis looks at himself unbandaged in the mirror and says, "It looks like I have some more healing to do," I couldn't help thinking that was Anderson's message to the audience. (Since we all know the personal problems Wilson has been dealing with lately, it's difficult not to be completely unnerved, saddened even, by his performance.)
"The Darjeeling Limited" isn't Wes Anderson's best, but it shows he is trying his best.